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Tuesday, January 31, 2023
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For those not familiar with Sephardic practice, this comes as a complete shock. Upon hearing Sephardim reciting amen after the bracha of Hashkiveinu, one recognizes that the kehillah is following the Rambam who (unlike Tosafot) believes that one should recite amen upon completing a series of brachot. Upon hearing a Sephardic Jew reciting Shehechiyanu at a brit milah, one recognizes the congregation following the ruling of Maran Rav Yosef Karo (also unlike Tosafot). However, why do Sephardim not perform nefilat apayim? The Gemara mentions this practice in a number of places, as does the Rambam!

It turns out that this practice has to do with the mizmor recited by Sephardic Jews for tahanun. We will chart the history of this development following the outstanding presentation in the wonderful Koren edition of the Sephardic siddur. The Rambam (Hilchot Tefillah 9:5) in describing nefilat apayim does not mention a specific mizmor of Tehillim to be recited in this context. The siddurim of both the Rambam and the Geonim present certain tehinot (supplications) to be recited during nefilat apayim. The Ra’ah (in his hiddushim to Berachot 31a) mentions Tehillim Chapter 51 as a most appropriate choice to be recited, due to its content of vidui and teshuva (this mizmor describes David HaMelech’s teshuva from the sin he committed with Batsheva; Sephardim recite this perek on Yom Kippur), but this practice did not emerge as mainstream.

Sephardic practice, however, does not follow the Ra’ah but rather the recommendation of the Zohar to recite Mizmor 25. This mizmor is indeed most powerful and very appropriate for one to spill out his heart to Hashem. The Zohar, though, makes a very significant caveat regarding the recital of this perek in the context of nefilat apayim. He insists that when reciting this perek one must wholeheartedly be committed to sacrifice his soul for the sake of Hashem, and issues a severe warning to one who recites this mizmor without proper kavanah/intent. The Zohar’s warning is presented by the Beit Yosef in his commentary to the Tur (Orach Chaim 131). It is for this reason, writes the Magen Avraham (131:5), that Ashkenazim do not recite this perek, despite the Zohar’s preference for Mizmor 25.

The Sephardic practice stems from the Ben Ish Hai, Rav Yosef Chaim of Baghdad (1835-1909), a work that has had and continues to have enormous impact on Sephardic Jews. He writes that we are no longer capable of sustaining the level of intensity demanded by the Zohar for recitation of Mizmor 25 while engaged in nefilat apayim. He records that as a result the practice has emerged in Baghdad for everyone, from the most learned to the most simple, to refrain from nefilat apayim.

The Ben Ish Hai records that he reached out to the legendary center of Sephardic Kabbalistic study in Jerusalem called Yeshivat Beit El (which exists to this very day; it is located opposite the Hurvah and Ramban synagogues in Jerusalem’s Old City). The Rosh Yeshiva responded that they, too, refrain from nefilat apayim due to this concern. The Ben Ish Hai concludes with a strong recommendation for all Sephardic Jews to refrain from nefilat apayim.

Although there was some opposition to this practice from the great Turkish authority Rav Haim Palagi (Kaf Hahaim 16:14), Hacham Ovadia Yosef (Teshuvot Yehave Da’at 6:7) notes that the practice of all Sephardic Jews has emerged to follow the recommendation of the Ben Ish Hai. Indeed, those familiar with Bava Metzia 59b, where we find that Rabban Gamliel dies immediately after Rabi Eliezer engaged in nefilat apayim, asking Hashem to punish his brother-in-law Rabban Gamliel for excommunicating him in the wake of the Tanur Shel Achnai episode, readily understand the enormous power of nefillat apayim and realize that it might be preferable to avoid yielding such power.

Not every Sephardic practice emerges from the Rambam. The Rambam is not known for his mystical leaning, but Sephardic Jews certainly are greatly impacted by Kabbalah. Refraining from nefilat apayim is an example of the profound impact of Kabbalah upon Sephardic Jews (of which the Ben Ish Hai played a major role). Hacham Ovadia Yosef rolled back some of this impact but not in regard to this matter. Therefore, do not be surprised the next time one attends a weekday tefillah at Shaarei Orah, or any other Sephardic kehilla, and the kehilla recites tahanun without nefilat apayim. Those who are not Sephardim who are praying with a Sephardic kehilla should also follow the practice of the tzibbur and refrain from nefilat apayim.

Rabbi Haim Jachter

Rabbi Haim Jachter is the rabbi of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck.

 

 

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